There was no mistaking the ziggurat for the mountains when I looked westward. The temple glittered with reflections of the sunrise and dwarfed the adjacent Rockies. I put the van into gear and pulled onto I70. There was no precise count of how many members of the Church of the Sun were in the ziggurat, but they’d soon be short a van-full.
“Are you in position?” Gaurav’s voice asked over the wireless.
“I’ll be at least 30 minutes.”
“I don’t want another Clearwater.”
“I will be in position. Hold on.”
We did get half a dozen people out of the compound that day, even if a few of us got arrested. That part was my fault for getting distracted by Jacynthe. I’d felt this connection with her and I spent precious minutes convincing her to come with us instead of escaping with the others. That’s why I only drive the van now. Things with Jacynthe and I never worked out but at least she wasn’t working 17 hour days printing and packaging promotional tracts about bad feelings being caused by alien ghosts.
Along I70 the billboards cross-faded from commercial advertisements to Church of the Sun propaganda. Why haven’t you yet followed the light? Likewise, the bumper stickers of a sun-symbol encased in a triangle went from oddity to ubiquity as traffic progressed from the city to the mountains.
“You know how hard the computer cells have worked for this. You can’t just drop a blackout on a building with its own generators,” Gaurav’s voice interrupted my thoughts.
“It will be less obvious if I drive up after the fact instead of loitering outside.”
“These people are desperate to leave the church. Don’t let them down.”
The ziggurat grew larger in the windshield as the highway wound through the hills. I kept me thinking I was about to drive right up to it despite the reminders from the GPS I was still several kilometers away. The last time I’d driven out so far was to rescue people from the Children of Origen.
There was supposed to be a distraction of fireworks and some starter-pistols before going in to pick up the escapees. Gaurav said nothing about setting fire to the groups’ storehouses. About half the members that were willing to leave the group stayed to fight the fire instead of escaping. Geoffery, Emma and the others whose names escape me seemed extra wary of us after that.
“So what if they think we’re mad. We’re just trying to give them a fresh start that doesn’t involve giving their best years to some cult,” Gaurav told me when we argued afterwards.
“I don’t care about how the cells are supposed to work with one another. I need to know what they’re planning something like that if I’m meeting the ones being rescued.”
“You’ll be informed next time, I promise.”
The GPS warbled that the destination was imminent and the ziggurat loomed over the windshield.
“I’m just about in place, Gaurav.” I said to the communicator.
“Very good, they’re just starting.”
Muffled explosions echoed between the mountains. Beams supporting the upper levels broke in a cascade of scraping and wrenching and large sections of the ziggurat visibly shifted. Panes of tempered glass cracked on all its sides.
“Gaur? What’s happening?”
“I didn’t know, I swear,” the communicator crackled. Tongues of fire flickered out of open windows in the lower levels and started to climb upwards.
“I’m leaving.” I looked over my shoulder to check the way before backing out and back onto the road. People clad in jacks and shirts bearing embroidered sun-symbols streamed out of the ziggurat and across the plateau.
“It was supposed to be a blackout. It was just going to be a virus and they’d all escape during the blackout.”
“Shut up, Gaurav.”
I had started backing the van out when I saw the group approaching, pointing in recognition. I put the van in park and opened the side doors for them to climb in. I adjusted the rear view mirror and met Jacynthe’s eyes in the back seat.
“How?” I turned around in my seat.
“I didn’t think I’d see you again.”
“Hey?” another voice spoke from the back. “Do I know you? I was with the Children and you were there the night of the fire,” said Geoffery. I recognized almost all the faces in back if I didn’t know their names. I had rescued them all at some point. Outside, others fled the ziggurat and headed toward the city.
“Where are we going?” said Jacynthe.
“I think you need find the answer to that.”
I gave her the keys to the van and left all of them up on the hill. Behind me the ziggurat slouched and burned, but remained standing.
Illustration by Marco Attard